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Canon S120 Review -- Now Shooting

Overview by
Posted: 08/22/2013

: Shooter's Report Blog Part I - A Capable Little Companion for the Big City

The Canon S120 is here, and it seems Canon was listening to us when they made it. A followup to the Canon S110 which we reviewed last March, the PowerShot S120 looks to answer at least half of our main concerns about the earlier model. On paper, at least, it would seem to be a very worthwhile update.

The 12.1 megapixel Canon S120 retains a pocket-friendly body very similar to that of its predecessor. As with that model, it's aimed at enthusiasts who want a larger sensor than the typical compact, but who don't need all the bells and whistles of a G-series camera. Changes include a new image sensor, brighter lens, faster DIGIC 6 image processor, higher-res LCD, refined Wi-Fi feature set, new battery pack, and slightly better battery life. The PowerShot S120 also has a brand new body with a dual-textured front panel, and a slightly smaller rear thumb grip.

Size and weight of the Canon S120 are increased only slightly over those of the S110. Although the rear-panel control layout is unchanged, the buttons are a bit more tightly packed in, though. The reason: a larger bezel around the LCD, which also now protrudes somewhat from the rear deck, where the S110 was smooth. That's likely the main reason for a modest increase in depth. Two other physical changes of note: the stereo microphone and monaural speaker have both moved to the top deck, and the popup flash now has a manual release on the left side of the camera body.

Canon S120 review -- Front view

Probably the key change is the new DIGIC 6 image processor. In concert with the new image sensor -- which has the same size and effective resolution as in the earlier camera -- the Canon S120 is now capable of shooting with focus and exposure locked for five frames at a manufacturer-specified rate of 12.1 frames per second, before slowing to 9.4 fps. Enable autofocus, and you'll still manage 5.5 fps, a huge improvement from the sedate 1.8 fps we measured for the S110. If these figures hold up in our lab, and if the raw performance is similarly improved, this change alone will make the Canon S120 a much more pleasant camera to shoot with.

And DIGIC 6 doesn't just improve burst-shooting performance. Canon also predicts better noise performance, and a 50% increase in autofocus speed, another area in which the earlier S110 lagged the competition. Throw in a new 60 fps Full HD (1920 x 1080) movie mode where the S110 topped out at 24 fps, and the switch to DIGIC 6 looks to be huge news. (If you preferred the film-like feel of 24p video, you may mourn its loss, but there is at least still a 30p mode.)

Canon has also updated the PowerShot S120's 5x optical zoom lens. Although the actual and equivalent focal length range are unchanged -- you'll find everything from a generous 24mm wide angle to a modest 120mm telephoto, in 35mm-equivalents -- the Canon S120's lens is now brighter across the whole range. It's not a night and day difference, but you should find the new f/1.8 to f/5.7 optic makes it easier to shoot in low light than did the old f/2.0 to f/5.9 lens. It'll also be somewhat easier to isolate your subject from the background with depth-of-field blur, although this isn't really a strong point of any small-sensor compact.

Canon S120 review -- Rear view

Like its predecessor, the Canon PowerShot S120 has a 3.0-inch LCD with a capacitive touch screen. (That's the same type used in most smartphones, and is far more sensitive than the resistive types used on some older or less expensive cameras.) However, the monitor's resolution has doubled from 461k dots to 922k dots. That equates to approximately 640 x 480 pixels, with each pixel made up of separate red, green, and blue dots. The increase should make viewing images on the S120 a much more pleasant experience, which is good news, given that it lacks an optical viewfinder.

Another area which we singled out for improvement in the S110 -- and in which Canon has responded -- is Wi-Fi. The Canon S120 retains the wireless networking connectivity of its predecessor, but initial setup of the Wi-Fi connection should be easier, and there's no longer any requirement to install software on your computer. Canon's CameraWindow app for iOS and Android devices also now supports landscape orientation, as well as Android tablets. You'll still need to use the Canon iMAGE GATEWAY service to get your images and movies onto social networking sites, but the process should be more streamlined than it was in the past. You can also print directly via Wi-Fi to Canon's PIXMA MG7120 or MG5220 Wireless Photo All-in-One printers.

Canon S120 review -- Popup flash

Canon has added several new shooting modes to the PowerShot S120. The Star mode offers Star Nightscape, Star Trails, and Star Time-lapse Movie options, which do pretty-much what you'd think: the first exposes for sharply-defined stars behind a landscape, the second blurs them into star trails, and the third creates a video showing star motion across the sky. A Background Defocus mode aims to supplement the lens' depth-of-field blur for better subject isolation. There's also a handheld High Dynamic Range mode which takes multiple shots and boosts dynamic range, and a Smart Auto mode that recognizes -- and configures the camera for -- 58 different scene types. And of course, there's a popup flash for when you need to throw a little more light onto your subject.

We also had concerns about battery life of the PowerShot S110, and the new Canon S120 brings an improvement in this area too, albeit a fairly modest one. Where the earlier camera could manage 200 shots on a charge, Canon claims 230 shots from the S120. Enable ECO Mode, and you should be able to stretch this to a more reasonable 300 shots. There is, however, a new NB-6LH battery pack -- so if you're upgrading from the S110 you won't be able to use your existing batteries.

The Canon PowerShot 120 stores images on Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types, as well as the higher-speed UHS-I types. Connectivity includes standard-def composite and high-def Mini (Type C) HDMI video outputs, plus a USB data port.

Available from October 2013, the Canon S120 is priced at US$450.

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Shooting with the Canon S120

by Eamon Hickey

Shooter's Report Part I - A Capable Little Companion for the Big City

Posted: 01/15/2014

The opportunity to shoot with the Canon PowerShot S120 gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with a line of premium compact cameras I've liked ever since I reviewed my first S-series PowerShot, the S45, way back in 2002. In that bygone world Facebook wasn't even a dream and the iPhone and Instagram were still years in the future. The new PowerShot S120 is chock full of features for the modern world of 2013, but I'm happy to say that the basic idea of its predecessors -- a very compact, well-built camera with advanced features -- survives unchanged.

Canon S120 review -- sample image
5.2mm (24mm eq.), f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 125

Size, handling, and controls. The Canon PowerShot S120 manages the nice trick of being very compact and lightweight while still feeling very solidly built, with a premium fit and finish. On three different days, I carried the camera around New York City on foot and by bicycle, and it fit easily in a jacket pocket. I don't typically carry cameras in my pants pockets, but if you do, the PowerShot S120 is small enough to do so comfortably. It's not much different than carrying a smartphone.

Canon S120 review -- angle left with flash

Although the Canon PowerShot S120 is quite small and has no grip beyond a thumb ridge, I found it easy to hold and handle. On my first outing with it, I spent an hour walking around Greenwich Village looking for quick grab shots, and I had no trouble carrying the camera in my hand the whole time, secured by a simple wrist strap. In fact, the PowerShot S120 is a camera that could go with me almost everywhere.

As befits its premium lineage, the Canon PowerShot S120's controls are precisely engineered, and they operate with a positive feel and quick response. The buttons and dials are small but well placed and designed. On my first walk, I came across a common East Village sight -- a young actor or musician (or maybe just a scenester) striking a pose for a photographer friend -- and was able to switch the camera to Auto mode and capture the scene in about a second as the actor/musician/whatever tried to look dashing for his 8x10 headshot.

Canon S120 review -- sample image
18.3mm (86mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/60s, ISO 800
A candid camera. The PowerShot S120 has the controls and speed you need to capture shots quickly.
Canon S120 review -- mode dial

The overall control system and layout of the Canon PowerShot S120 also strikes a good balance, enabling lots of versatile features without cluttering the camera. A dedicated dial gives quick access to all exposure modes -- in my outings with the camera I usually alternated between Auto and Aperture Priority. In the PASM modes it's quick and easy to access exposure compensation, as I did for a shot of a man in a café where I reduced the exposure by 2/3 stop to maintain the dark feel of the environment. It was equally easy to change ISO on the fly as I did when I stepped into a coffee house on a drizzly day, increasing the ISO to make several shots of the denizens huddling in the dim light around their warm cups of Java.

Canon is touting that the HS System in the PowerShot S120 produces high quality images in low light. The camera can record at ISOs as high as 12,800. I used the PowerShot S120 at ISOs from 400 to 6400, including my shots in the café and the coffee house, as well as for some outdoor pictures in deep shade on an overcast day. The resulting images have obvious noise reduction processing, but they are indeed remarkably good for a compact camera, easily usable for modest enlargements in my view.

Canon S120 - Higher ISO potential
Canon S120 review -- sample image
6.5mm (31mm eq.), f/2.5, 1/15s, ISO 800
Canon S120 review -- sample image
13.8mm (65mm eq.), f/4.0, 1/20s, ISO 2000
Canon S120 review -- sample image
18.5mm (87mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/50s, ISO 6400
As ISO rises... The S120 holds its own for a camera with a smaller sensor.

One interesting control on the Canon PowerShot S120 is the ring around the base of the lens. I thought I'd like it for controlling the zoom function -- it zooms the lens in 7 distinct steps -- but I turned out to prefer the standard rocker switch around the shutter release for that. So, in Washington Square Park, I switched its function to controlling manual focus (it can be used for 9 different functions) for a macro shot of some multi-colored leaves. It worked poorly, with slow and mushy focus response. For my shooting at least, I don't see any real advantage to using it for the other functions it can control, so the ring ended up being a bit of a disappointment for me.

Canon S120 review -- rear controls

As we noted above, the display on the Canon PowerShot S120 is a 920,000-dot touch screen. It's crystal clear, as one would expect, and fairly usable in bright light (about the same as other high quality LCD screens I've shot with). Its touch screen functions also worked seamlessly for me, although I used them only to test: the PowerShot S120 has enough of the right buttons and dials that I didn't need the touch screen to control the camera efficiently.

Performance. Canon is touting the fast autofocus on the PowerShot S120, and it is indeed very quick. It let me grab several fleeting moments as I was using the camera, including the shot of the scenester posing for a portrait that I mentioned earlier. On that same drizzly day, I was walking into Washington Square Park when I happened on a squadron of filmmakers (almost certainly NYU Film School students) standing next to a video camera and reviewing a scene on a laptop. I raised the camera and snapped the shot in less than a second. In all my outings with the camera, focus was always fast and decisive, even in relatively low light.

Canon S120 review -- sample image
18.3mm (86mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/125s, ISO 3200
Focus. The PowerShot S120 focuses quickly and decisively, even in sub-optimal light.

The Canon PowerShot S120 can also shoot 9.4 frames per second without buffer stall. How many people will find this useful on a point-and-shoot? I'm not sure, but I tried it out anyway, using it to capture a sequence of two dogs play-fighting in the dog run at Tompkins Square Park. It definitely works, but if you forget to change the setting back to single shot, and ambient noise makes it hard to hear the camera, you can end up with a whole ton of inadvertent pictures from the rest of your walk in the park. Trust me on that.

In all other ways, I found the Canon PowerShot S120 to be nicely responsive but not remarkable. Startup is quick but not instantaneous (the lens needs a little time to extend). In my shooting with it, control response was quick -- certainly quick enough that it didn't slow me down, and where I missed a shot or two as I fumbled with the camera, it was my fault, not the camera's. And Canon's on-screen hints for navigating the control system are easy to understand. 

We've already commented on the relatively skimpy battery life figures for the Canon PowerShot S120, and I experienced this first hand, exhausting the battery in less than 3 hours of heavy use one day. For me, that's the one significant fly in the ointment for this camera: on a busy shooting day, I'd need a spare battery, so if you buy one of these little gems I highly recommend that one little luxury.

Canon S120 review -- sample image
5.2mm (24mm eq.), f/2.8, 0.6s, ISO 200

Stay tuned for Part II of my Canon S120 Shooter's Report, where I'll explore the lens, Wi-Fi, and some additional features packed into this little camera. In the meantime, head over to the Canon S120 gallery page for a closer look at this first batch of sample gallery images, and a few others as well.

*(Special note to our readers: Many of you may already know, but it's worthwhile repeating once again, that we never apply any post-processing to our gallery images, other than a size reduction for showing them onscreen. All images you see are straight-from-the-camera JPEGs, and clicking on the images will take you to a page where you can access the full size image exactly as the camera produced it. You're welcome to download these for your own testing purposes, play with them in post-processing, etc., to help you further evaluate the cameras' potential for your own individual shooting needs. Please contact us for permission to use for commercial purposes, or on another website.)*

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